Ethiopian plane crashes in sea off Beirut, bodies found

An Ethiopian Airlines plane with 90 people on board crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Beirut in bad weather early on Monday. Nine bodies were recovered as a search for survivors began.

The Boeing 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar about five minutes after taking off at 2.37am (12.37am GMT) during a thunderstorm and heavy rain. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately.

“As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause,” Suleiman told a news conference.

Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight, Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi told reporters at the airport where relatives of the passengers gathered to wait for news of survivors.

“[The crash] site has been identified three-and-a-half km west of the [coastal] village of Na’ameh,” he said.

Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, two were British and there were also Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi and Syrian nationals.

Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the French embassy said.

The Lebanese government declared a day of mourning.

‘Ball of fire’
Lebanese army patrol boats and helicopters were searching a small area off Na’ameh, 10km south of Beirut.

The military spokesperson for UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, Colonel Diego Fulco, said two ships from its maritime task force were at the crash site and a third was on its way. Two UN helicopters were also at the scene, he said.

A Cypriot police helicopter and another from the British military stationed in Cyprus were also involved in the search.

According to one source, residents on the coast saw a “ball of fire” crashing off Na’ameh.

State-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which confirmed the crash, has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.

It has regular flights to Lebanon, catering for business clients and the hundreds of Ethiopians who work there as domestic helpers. Lebanese aviation sources said some of the passengers had been en route to Angola.

Last Friday the airline announced an order for 10 of Boeing’s Next-Generation 737-800s for a total price of $767-million.

The last major incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in November 1996 when 125 of the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed into the sea off the Comoros Islands. – Reuters

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